"In Flanders Field," one of the most well-known poems written during WWI, was composed in 1915 by Major John McCrae after he conducted the funeral service for another officer, a friend, 22-year-old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who had been killed in the fighting in France.
"Conducted the funeral service" puts it mildly. The account linked above says Helmer died on the morning of May 2 when he "left his dugout and was killed instantly by a direct hit from an 8 inch German shell. What body parts could be found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial that evening." No chaplain was present, so McCrae "conducted a simple service at the graveside, reciting from memory some passages from the Church of England's 'Order of Burial of the Dead'." Then they buried Helmer and marked his grave, as they had countless others, with a cross bearing his name.
Helmer's grave was marked, but the marking eventually was lost, and he "he is one of the 54,896 soldiers who have no known grave in the battlefields of the Ypres Salient." That's 54,896 unknown graves in an area that was fought over during the four years between 1914 and 1918, was the site of the first use of chemical (gas) weaponry, saw fighting every single day during one two-year stretch, and was the place where as many as 400,000 to 500,000 men on all sides of the conflict were killed or mortally wounded. That's one area of one region on the continent as a whole.
This year, the British remembered their dead WWI soldiers, those from Britain itself and from their colonies at the time, with a Sea of Ceramic Poppies flowing from the Tower of London and pooling around the base of the tower. One poppy for each soldier who died adds up to 888,246 poppies filling the moat.
|This image from the Daily Mail shows the Sea of Ceramic Poppies |
filling the moat around the Tower of London.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The last stanza charges future generations to "take up the quarrel against the foe," and we can and should consider carefully who/what that foe is and how best to "take up the quarrel."
Nevertheless, as long as we live in an imperfect world where evil vies for our hearts and minds and lives and nations, each of us is called to protect, to guard, to defend -- whether through military service or through civil service or through active, thoughtful citizenship -- the ideas* that good exists, that good will ultimately prevail, and that, until then, it is better to die, physically or in the small daily sacrifices we make for others, in the service of good than it is to pretend that evil does not exist, that the conflict does not exist, and/or that we are not called to serve.
None of us is innocent. None of us is excused. None of us ever can be said to have retired from active duty. We each have been thrown a torch. Will we take what is good and use it for evil to burn, kill, and destroy? Will we, out of fear that we are misusing it, stamp it out and, having blinded ourselves to good, stumble about in evil's darkness? Or will we hold it high to shed as much good light as we can so all can see to work for good.
*When a recruit joins the U.S. military, he/she takes an oath to "support and defend" what? The president? The country? The people? Read the oath here. Here is another Department of Defense article worth reading to help us understand how our country works and why: "Why Civilian Control of the Military?"